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China’s laureate outlaw

Jailed dissident Liu Xiaobo was an influential leader in promoting Chinese freedom and human rights

China’s laureate outlaw

People in Hong Kong mourn the death of jailed Chinese Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo. (Billy H.C. Kwok/Getty Images)

Even as imprisoned Nobel Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo lay dying on a hospital bed, his body emaciated and skin sallow, Chinese officials refused to give the human rights advocate the one thing he’d sought his entire life: freedom.

Democracy activist Liu, who died of liver cancer July 13 at age 61, was the first Nobel Peace Prize winner to die in custody since the reign of the Nazis. Western political leaders expressed their sympathies, and the White House said U.S. President Donald Trump was "deeply saddened" to hear of the death of the "poet, scholar, and courageous advocate." But in China, during the hours following Liu's passing, media coverage of the death was muted: Instead, government censors were reportedly blocking condolences Chinese citizens attempted to post to social media, including even the word "RIP."

The Chinese Communist Party has long considered Liu dangerous—so dangerous that a dozen plainclothes police surrounded the hospital building where he was treated for advanced-stage cancer during the final weeks of his life. Officials barred doctors from bringing cell phones into his hospital room and stopped his friends from visiting. Only his wife, poet Liu Xia, stood by his side, dressed in black with her head shaved, herself having lived under house arrest since her husband won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010.

The government of China denied the couple’s last request to seek medical treatment in Germany or the United States. In late June, 154 Nobel laureates signed a letter urging the Chinese government “on humanitarian grounds to grant Liu Xiaobo and Liu Xia’s wish to travel to the United States for medical treatment.” Beijing, though, would not relent, even after two Western doctors declared Liu well enough to make the trip.

Associated Press

Liu Xia attends her husband in a hospital in Shenyang, China. (Associated Press)

When Liu Xia asked for her husband’s medical records from his time in prison, officials refused to let her see them: They insisted he had been given weekly checkups and that everything came up normal until the May 23 cancer diagnosis that led to his release on medical parole. Yet many of Liu’s supporters remain suspicious, as China has a history of withholding medical treatment to get rid of political prisoners.

“We don’t know if they purposefully delayed treatment until it was late-stage cancer or if the disease was caused by the food or environment in the prison,” said Yu Jie, a fellow activist and a close friend of Liu. “If China democratizes in the future, these are things we will need to look into.”

WHAT MADE LIU, a former professor at Beijing Normal University and Chinese literary critic, such a threat to the Communist government that Beijing froze relations with Norway after his Nobel Prize win?

“He is very straightforward and genuine; he’s not afraid to share his thoughts,” Yu said of his friend. As a major contributor to Charter 08, a manifesto calling for basic freedoms, human rights, and democratic reform in China, Liu frightened the government with his ability to unite Chinese intellectuals to his cause. For that, and for his refusal to leave China, officials sentenced him to 11 years in prison for “instigating subversion of state power.”

Born in Changchun in northeast China, Liu was a teenager when the Cultural Revolution began in 1966, closing down schools and sending Liu and his family to a commune in Inner Mongolia. Liu looked back at that time as a blessing, since it allowed him to escape the school system’s Communist indoctrination. Instead he devoured books, including some banned by the government, and learned to think for himself.

Once universities reopened following the death of Mao Zedong, Liu studied Chinese literature at Jilin University, and went on to pursue a master’s degree and Ph.D. at Beijing Normal University. While earning his doctorate, he began teaching as a lecturer and gained acclaim for his literary critiques of popular writers and of established ideas such as communism and traditional Chinese Confucianism. Yu said that although Liu did not spend much time in the West, he thought more like a Western scholar than his Chinese peers. Liu frequently read Western works such as those of Plato, Kant, and Nietzsche, and encouraged China to pursue a government system similar to that of the West.

When Liu, while visiting Columbia University in New York City in 1989, heard news of college students filling Tiananmen Square to demonstrate for political reform, he hurriedly returned to Beijing to join them. He stayed with the students on June 4 even as the tanks rolled in and the Chinese army opened fire on students and bystanders. Liu tried negotiating with the army and persuaded students to leave the square, saving countless lives.

A day later, authorities arrested Liu and imprisoned him for two years for his involvement as a “black hand” behind the protests. After his release, officials maintained a tight rein on his influence: The university fired him from his teaching position and the government banned the publication of his writing.

Yet with the advent of the internet, Liu reached a wide audience by publishing his articles in Hong Kong and Taiwanese media and sharing essays online. He advocated changing society at the grassroots level with the help of human rights lawyers. Rather than an abrupt change, individuals “pushing for a free and democratic China should concentrate on gradual change in society and expect that this will eventually force a change in regime,” Liu wrote in an essay in 2006. Unlike other Chinese activists, he did not agree that China should reunify with Taiwan and Hong Kong, but rather supported autonomy. For these radical ideas, the government jailed him three more times—most recently in December 2008 for his work on drafting Charter 08.

LIU DIDN’T THINK CHARTER 08 WOULD cause any problems, as the manifesto’s language was much milder than essays he had previously written. In 2008, Liu, his friend Yu, and other activists carefully crafted the document to ensure a wide range of intellectuals could endorse it, often meeting at a friend’s restaurant to circumvent government wiretaps of their phones. Only Liu Xia feared Charter 08 would land her husband back behind bars.

With Liu’s prominence, he convinced 70 scholars to sign the manifesto. By the time the document was unveiled, it included 303 signatures from public intellectuals, leaders of workers’ and farmers’ groups, and some government officials. After it was published online, more than 12,000 people signed it.

It was the first time since 1989 that intellectuals had rallied around a common cause, and the government was worried. Before Charter 08, the government had successfully silenced scholars by increasing their salaries and benefits, then threatening to take away their cushy jobs if they criticized the Chinese Communist Party. Those who spoke out anyway were crushed: Officials barred them from speaking to the media, harassed their family members, and restricted their freedoms.

Junge/NTB Scanpix/Zuma Press

The empty chair with a diploma and medal that should have been awarded Liu in Oslo, Norway. (Junge/NTB Scanpix/Zuma Press)

The manifesto’s predecessor, Czechoslovakia’s Charter 77 (released in 1977), similarly called for the then-Communist government of Czechoslovakia to respect human rights. The 242 Czech signatories faced persecution, yet by 1989, they were able to help bring about democratic reforms in their own country and in Eastern Europe. Václav Havel, a Charter 77 author who later became the first president of the Czech Republic, wrote in a New York Times op-ed that the power of China’s Charter 08 was that it “forged connections among different groups that did not exist before.”

Fearing such influence by the manifesto, Chinese authorities arrested Liu and later sentenced him to 11 years in prison. When Liu won the Nobel Prize in 2010, police clamped down on celebrations in China, pressured world diplomats to boycott the awards ceremony, and barred Liu’s friends and family from traveling to Oslo, Norway, to accept the prize on his behalf. It was the first time a Nobel Peace Prize was left unclaimed since pacifist Carl von Ossietzky won the prize in 1935 while imprisoned by Nazi Germany.

YU, 43, BEFRIENDED LIU AFTER writing his first book, the critically acclaimed Fire and Ice, in 1998. Liu Xia brought a copy of the book to Liu in prison, and once he was released, he called Yu with his thoughts. “Most Chinese are polite and speak in a roundabout way, but Liu was very straightforward,” Yu said. “He shared areas where he had different views and critiqued my ideas.” The two met in person soon afterward and quickly became close friends, meeting up every week.

“Most Chinese are polite and speak in a roundabout way, but Liu was very straightforward” —Yu

Besides Liu’s intellect, Yu admired his humility. Many Chinese activists who have waged long battles against the Communist regime develop a spirit of pride and may expect others to idolize them. Yu said he’s read many accounts of the Tiananmen Square massacre by democracy leaders, and most portray themselves as flawless heroes—a communication style not unlike Communist propaganda.

Yet in an essay titled, “Listen carefully to the voices of the Tiananmen Mothers,” Liu is contemplative and remorseful: “How was it that university students and high-level intellectuals led the 1989 movement, but when the dust settled all the people who were massacred, went out to rescue the wounded, or received heavy sentences were common people? Why is it that we scarcely hear the voices of the people who paid the heaviest prices, while the luminaries who survived the massacre can hardly stop talking?”

In an attempt to repay the debt to his students who died that day, Liu felt burdened to stay in China to help bring their dreams of a reformed China to fruition. Even when friends and fellow dissidents urged him to find sanctuary overseas, he refused to leave.

Yu, who is a Christian, said Liu also influenced his faith. While Liu was not a professing Christian, he wrote extensively about Christianity during his third prison sentence from 1996 to 1999. While behind bars, Liu read the Bible, John Calvin, Martin Luther, and St. Augustine’s The City of God and wrote about the relationship between Christianity and democracy. Yu said his friend understood how the tenets of the Bible brought about ideals such as freedom and human rights. Throughout their friendship, Liu would join Yu at his church, Beijing Ark House Church, for outreach events, Christmas services, and evangelistic meetings.

Yet Liu would tell Yu that he wanted to wait until he became a better person, a man more like Jesus, before he professed faith. Although Yu explained that man could not perfect himself—that Jesus died on the cross for the sinner, not the saint—Liu never publicly converted to Christianity, Yu said.

During Liu’s Charter 08 trial on Dec. 23, 2009, he read his final statement, claiming his innocence without bitterness toward his accusers.

“I have no enemies, and no hatred. None of the police who have watched, arrested, or interrogated me, none of the prosecutors who have indicted me, and none of the judges who will judge me are my enemies. … “Hatred only eats away at a person’s intelligence and conscience, and an enemy mentality can poison the spirit of an entire people (as the experience of our country during the Mao era clearly shows). … I hope that I can answer the regime’s enmity with utmost benevolence, and can use love to dissipate hate.”

June Cheng

June Cheng

June is the East Asia correspondent for WORLD Magazine. Follow June on Twitter @JuneCheng_World.